Putting a price on pricelessness
How do you make an ordinary kitchen sink priceless? Carve someone’s name into it. Just a few letters engraved in the steel and—presto! Where there was once a forgettable household sink, now sits a precious heirloom.
“This was my great-great grandmother’s,” they’ll say someday.
Dan Stackhouse, of Farmer’s Trophies & Engraving in Denver, CO, has been mastering this trick for 15 years. He has only engraved one kitchen sink, though an ordinary day at Farmer’s might feature photo frames, crystal platters, antique knives, deer antlers, gold pendants, iPhones, or any other ordinary knick-knack someone wants to make unforgettable.
“It’s like tattoos,” Stackhouse explained. “Why do people get tattoos? As a tribute to someone maybe, or because they want to stand out. We see this more and more: the desire to take the ordinary and make it unique.”
What is eligible for uniqueness? Almost anything. In the 1930s, company founder Clarence Farmer would meticulously etch designs by hand for local watchmakers and jewelers. These days, the shop features high-tech precision lathes, sandblasters, and lasers with which Farmer’s can place “Good Job” on 300 plastic medals or cover an antique rifle in elaborate Western filigree.
“Sometimes it’s purely practical. An electrician needs a code on a power box. Some people just want a name and date, or a company logo,” Stackhouse said. “Others say, ‘Can you design us something from scratch for our 60th anniversary?’”
Pricing the priceless
Even these precious memories come with itemized invoices.
“What you don’t want is, when you like the person you’re dealing with, and they like the design you’ve created, and then all of a sudden they see this invoice they don’t understand.”
That scenario happened quite a bit before Farmer’s adopted a Cougar Mountain Denali system to organize the more or less three different businesses: sale of blank gift objects, graphic design service, and the engraving itself, all generating about 5500 unique inventory line items.
The Farmer’s store room resembles something from Santa’s workshop—which isn’t as cheerful as it sounds if you’re the one organizing each ceramic coffee mug and tiny brass nameplate. Denali tracks the raw materials and bulk inventory items down to their exact quantities and positions on the shelf.
For Stackhouse, a customer doesn’t just buy a trophy and an engraving. They buy a figure, a column, base, internal rod, nameplate, exactly two bolts, and any other small components assembled on site.
“When we used to work with customers, they would look at the invoice and say, ‘This is a $10 item, and you’re billing me for seven line items?’ Now it’s not as confusing because Cougar Mountain lets us group these things together into one inventory item. They see just one thing.”
The organization goes both ways, Stackhouse continued: “For us, we get a true idea of the cost per item, instead of someone with a calculator at the end asking, ‘Did we charge enough for the nuts?’”
Once Stackhouse began to use the software, he found that it could help organize the more subjective side of the business. He said at first he didn’t think much of Denali’s features that allow custom images and notes with each inventory item. “But, then we realized we can just grab a photograph and our notes from the Cougar Mountain system, and put it together in a quote we can email to customers. Then the customer looks at it and says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want,’ and within two keystrokes we’re downstairs working on it.’”
These sorts of orders, the ones that involve creativity and communication on both sides, rarely fit into a neat listing. But Stackhouse can keep track of these jobs, if not by inventory line item, by the thorough, organized purchase records Denali keeps.
In one example, a son made his father a flask featuring an elaborate (and totally unique) engraving of the Chicago skyline. When his entire family decided they wanted Chicago flasks of their own, Farmer’s was able to look up the original order history and reproduce the product in a few clicks.
The memory business
In cases like these, Stackhouse and his team briefly enter into the lives of their clients, sharing their memories, rites of passages, successes and, sometimes, tragedies, as when they engrave memorials and urns.
Yet joy is far more common.
“I get to deal with someone who has just had a promotion, or a newborn, or a graduation,” Stackhouse continued. “I get to deal with a lot of fun parts of life. You’re getting married, and you’re excited, and you have this wedding ring you want to engrave on the inside. And that’s something we can do.”